Pixar writer/director Pete Docter and producer Jonas Rivera last week settled into the cozy confines of the University of Cincinnati’s DAAP building for a series of interviews and a larger-scale Q&A event with a group of design students eager to learn about their “magical” workplace. To even call Pixar “a workplace” around the DAAP crowd would seem to be a most grievous disservice, a fact backed up by Docter who spoke about the studio as a place where “the sense of play is important, although the pranks have given way to a more collegial vibe.”
On the verge of the release of the studio’s 10th animated feature, Pixar is growing up. Fittingly, the maturation springs from the story of Carl Fredrickson (voice of Ed Asner), a 78-year-old whose life and sense of adventure have seemingly passed him by. Back in the day, Carl marveled at the exploits of dashing explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) who crisscrossed the globe in search of rare creatures and brave new worlds lost in time.
Carl found a kindred spirit in young Ellie (Eli Docter), and the two became fast friends, although it was obvious that Ellie was the untamed wild child in this pairing. As the years progressed, Carl and Ellie married and their dreams took a backseat to the daily concerns of life. The collection jar for trips became a rainy-day fund for replacing flat tires, plugging leaks in the roof and paying for health emergencies. Eventually, Ellie passes on, leaving Carl with vague memories of those lofty aspirations and no co-pilot for the final journey.
Enter Russell (Jordan Nagai), a young Wilderness Explorer who is one assignment away from collecting all of his merit badges. He only needs to help an elderly person — and who needs more help than Carl, a man living in a house outfitted with enough individual balloons to uproot the structure for a trip to the great falls to which he and Ellie always dreamed of moving.
Up explicitly captures Pixar’s more adult scope in that it’s the studio’s the first film with exclusively human protagonists. There are no superheroes, humanized machines or talking animals. Well, there are talking dogs, but their vocalizations are explained: Careful attention has been placed on making them as dog-like (versus imposing human characteristics on them) as possible. Although Rivera is quick to point out that “all of the characters in Pixar films are human,” and Docter agrees that in terms of story, the goal is to find “emotional connectivity,” which to the creative team at Pixar is grounded in an essential humanity and growth of character.
Carl’s development comes from his ability to re-embrace his own sense of wonder and amazement that he lost with the death of his beloved Ellie. And in Russell, the audience sees the unlikely combination of the young Carl and Ellie. Russell shares Carl’s short wide body, but he is more rounded, whereas Carl is blocky (which matches, to a certain extent, audience expectations since Asner’s voice synchs perfectly with this frame). Although Ellie was a reed-thin kid, as she aged she filled out and it is not impossible to spot that in Russell. He is the child these two never had and the obvious seed of Carl’s rebirth.
Such physicality is on display behind the scenes as well. Docter has the look and feel of an animated character made of flesh with his long, big-kid face and jug ears sitting atop his gangly body. Unlike Carl, Docter embraces his child-like side and benefits from the loving stranglehold it has on him.
Rivera also has a goofy energy, although his wit and manner is in keeping with his more adult role as a producer of animated fare. The two men play well in a room full of students attentive and attuned to their stories of working in the business — much like when the duo found themselves at the feet of some of the old Disney animators, the very artists who inspired their dedication to the craft of storytelling.
Carl and Russell go up, up and away on and encounter the long-vanished Muntz, and a subtle shift occurs. Carl’s inspiration, it turns out, has a dark side and in meeting the formerly great explorer, Carl comes to realize that Muntz has gotten lost in his own mind. True explorers and adventurers have to keep looking outside themselves.
Pixar’s creative crew has opened the doors of the animated world and let in a broad new range of emotions that will become the foundation for even more rollicking adventures. And, who knows, maybe some of DAAP’s own will return with stories to inspire the next generation to soar even higher. Grade: A
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